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Originally published Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 10:07 PM

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'The House I Live In': War on drugs hits home in activist doc

A movie review of the activist documentary "The House I Live In," directed with heart by Eugene Jarecki, who was inspired to make it by his "second mother," an African-American woman who worked for his family.

The New York Times

Movie review

'The House I Live In,' a documentary written and directed by Eugene Jarecki. 108 minutes. Not rated. Sundance Cinemas.

The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.

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A call to national conscience, the activist documentary "The House I Live In" is persuasively urgent. Directed with heart by Eugene Jarecki, the movie is an insistently personal and political look at the war on drugs and its thousands of casualties, including those serving hard time for minor offenses.

It is, Jarecki asserts — as he sifts through the data, weighs the evidence and checks in with those on both sides of the law — a war that has led to mass incarcerations characterized by profound racial disparities and that has created another front in the civil-rights movement.

The title of the documentary isn't purely metaphoric. "The House I Live In" is the name of a song written by Lewis Allan and the blacklisted Earl Robinson ("All races and religions/That's America to me") that became a part of the Paul Robeson songbook. Jarecki uses it over the final credits of the documentary, a nod to Robeson's long history of civil-rights activism. Touchingly, the song also serves as Jarecki's plaintive acknowledgment that his documentary was directly inspired by his lifelong relationship with an African-American woman who worked for his family, Nannie Jeter (her real name).

Jeter was, Jarecki says early on, "like a second mother" to him.

"Our families were close, and her children and grandchildren were my playmates growing up," Jarecki says. "But as we got older," he continues, "I saw many of them struggling with poverty, joblessness, crime and worse."

When he asked Jeter what she thought "had gone wrong," her answer — drugs — surprised him. Whether Jarecki was as surprised as he states is immaterial to how he uses this relationship between a white man and his long-term black caretaker to build an argument about drugs in America and, more critically, about race and class. Nothing in the movie is as striking as his decision to risk seeming naive or worse by making himself part of the story. Yet it is precisely his insistence that this is the house that he, too, lives in that helps distinguish this movie, investing it with resonant feeling.

It's easy to take issue with a documentary like "The House I Live In," which tackles too much in too brief a time and glosses over complexities, yet this is also a model of the ambitious, vitalizing activist work that exists to stir the sleeping to wake.

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